Joe, plastic bags and cultural imperialism

By Kushal Regmi

This story took place a few months ago when a certain Joe from England arrived at Osho Tapoban, where I happen to live. While most of us there were enjoying the meditation and each other's company, Joe, who said he was a Tantric Teacher at Dharamshala, India, looked a bit unhappy as his "Tantric Teacher" ego did not let him join the milieu of joy, that is in abundance at the commune.

Rather, his mind searched for all the flaws he could find of the place. He took a long personal tour of the commune, after which he concluded that we were not a meditative bunch because he found a lot of plastic bags, plates and bottles in the stream that flows through our commune. His logic was - how could people who lived in a polluted surrounding attain meditative bliss?

The logic accepted, the following Saturday, we organized a cleanup group, of course as Joe as its leader. In a few hours, the commune periphery of about 200 ropanies of Nagurjuna forest was once again pristine and clear.

Everyone seemed happy for having done a good job but my heart remained bothered. Something did not look right in the proceedings that had taken place. Yes, our commune was clean but I did not feel that we had found the permanent solution. I especially did not like the idea of a dominating foreigner bossing us around. And besides, what were we to do with the three huge bags of plastic we had collected?

The plastic pellets that are used to make disposable plastic products in our country come from the EU nations, mainly Germany and England. Once plastic is not recyclable any more and needs to be disposed, plastic companies of many European countries turn them into small plastic pellets and sell them at minimum price to developing countries like ours. This is not only profitable for the plastic companies but moreover they bypass the complex regulations to properly dispose the plastic in their own country. Here in Nepal, we are happy to buy the pellets and turn them into disposable plastic bags. And anyway, who really cares about the environmental damage that we import along with the plastic pellets.

I told Joe to take the three bags of trash back to Europe, where they originated, for I felt, only then would we really have solved the problem and once again have plastic free streams. Joe did not know what to do with the collected plastic either, and the idea of making the trash part of his luggage didn't really appeal to him. So, maybe because of his tantrik leanings, he decided to remain silent.

I also told him that we are a culture that has used biodegradable disposable products like the duna and tapari (bowls and plates made of leaves) that we always threw back to nature after using them and they blend with the surrounding without causing any pollution. The problem began only when the West started exporting plastic pellets. We treated these products the same way as we treat the duna and tapari. We threw them away. But plastic takes 12,000 years to bio-degrade. This fact is not known to most of our Nepali folk who have always been using biodegradable products in place of plastic.

So we have two options: we can either go Gandhi on the whole thing and revert back to the days of duna and tapari, or we need to import the ways of handling newer technology along with the products we bring in from the West, or else we will always be in a messy situation constantly reminded to us by the Joes that keep on coming to Nepal to get their Indian visa extended.

The case of Joe is a classic example of neo cultural imperialism. Joe's proclamation that the residents of Tapoban are an "unmeditative bunch" does not at all show his meditative quality but rather brings out the imperialist nature he has inherited, quite unknowingly from his ancestors who were not as subtle as Joe in proclaiming our ways - "savage". Rather than making an effort at learning from the wisdom that radiates constantly at Tapoban, Joe wanted to assert that we did not know how to live and he, this white guy from England, knew exactly how to civilize us.

I don't know whether Joe is still in Dharamshala or has returned to England. But wherever you are Joe, the three bags of plastic we collected are still waiting for you. (The Kathmandu Post, March 18, 2007)

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